The Scarlet Knights have made a strong push towards relevance off the court over the summer. This fall they will welcome a solid recruiting class that includes 4-star point guard Corey Saunders and then this weekend they added 4-star guard Kwe Parker to their 2016 class. While landing a Top 100 ranked recruit in back-to-back classes may not be a big deal for some Big Ten programs, it is certainly a big step in the right direction for Rutgers and head coach Eddie Jordan.
The next step? They have to win some games. The three games listed below wouldn't just be good wins for gaining some momentum, they're high profile games that will help garner positive attention for the Scarlet Knights if they can win. The more positive media attention Rutgers can earn, the more recruits are going to take notice, and that's how you build a program. So what are the biggest non-conference games next season?
St. John's (at MSG) Gavitt Tipoff Games
Some people scoff at the idea that Rutgers can attract the New York market to the Big Ten and BTN, but a win in the basketball mecca that is Madison Square Garden certainly won't hurt the Knights' popularity in the Big Apple. St. John's is a team in flux right now. Steve Lavin was let go at the end of the season and first-time coach and Red Storm alum Chris Mullin was brought in. Mullin will lead a team that returns just three players against a Rutgers team with a decent amount turnover from last season themselves.
Rutgers will have a chance in this game. Even though St. John's was a NCAA Tournament team last year, this year's team will be completely unproven. Additionally, I would't be surprised if Mullin's team got caught up looking ahead to the Maui Invitational and overlooking a lightly regarded Rutgers squad. A win for the Knights would also help the Big Ten beat the Big East in the newly minted Gavitt Games, giving them an undefeated record when representing the conference after a win in last year's Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Which brings us to our next game:
Wake Forest (Home) Big Ten-ACC Challenge
Winning in cross-conference competitions is a great way to endear yourself to Big Ten fans. Wake Forest won't be an easy opponent, the Demon Deacons rarely are, but Rutgers gets them at home. The Deacons finished twelfth in the ACC last season, but they return almost their entire rotation and add three 4-star recruits (according to ESPN). Wake should be better than last year, however, they will be returning from the Maui Invitational with only about four days to prepare for their trip to New Jersey.
Rutgers and ACC-newcomer Louisville are the only undefeated Big Ten-ACC Challenge participants after both won in their first attempts last year. Hopefully, the Knights can keep their Challenge record spotless against Wake. Rutgers already beat the Deacons once this year as 2016 verbal commit Kwe Parker is from North Carolina and had an offer from Danny Manning's team.
Seton Hall (Home) Garden State Hardwood Classic
This match-up represents a bit of a unicorn in college athletics, the rare basketball rivalry trophy game. Introduced last season, the trophy is shaped like the state of New Jersey and is mostly made out of wooden planks. After last year's 81-54 loss, Eddie Jordan probably felt like he'd been beaten with some heavy wood planks. This year, Rutgers needs to redeem themselves. Rivalries aren't always tight contests, but getting blown-out in a rivalry game is a extra embarrassing.
The Pirates were extremely inconsistent last year, and finished seventh in the Big East. Leading scorer Sterling Gibbs has gone to UConn as a graduate transfer, but they do return former 5-star recruit Isaiah Whitehead, now a sophomore. This is a tough test every year for Rutgers, but if they want to win recruits and become one of the premier teams in the New York/New Jersey area they need to win this game more often than not.